Cults can be terrifying, especially to the uninitiated. Seared into our collective consciousness are images of Jonestown, Waco, and the monthly Mommy & Me gathering at the local mall. Humanity’s oldest, most influential, and most widespread cult is the Cult of Parenting. While it may not have the body count of the flashier cults, its internal groupthink is unmistakeable, and its disdain for outsiders is palpable.
I’m tempted to insert a definition of “cult” here, but since I’m not giving a speech in a high school public speaking class, I think I’ll refrain. What I will do is acknowledge some things we all know (or assume) about cults. They’re characterized by intense feedback loops of reassurance and affirmation. The indoctrination of new members is emotionally resonant, and a point of pride for both the new members and the body-at-large. They’re known for harsh judgements, sometimes veiled as pity, on those not part of the group, or on members of the group they consider to be impure. And they encourage some behavior which would conservatively be described as “deviant.” Sounds like parenting to me. Let’s look at the journey into The Cult.
To start, we have to acknowledge the unspoken and deepest truth — that having a child is the single most selfish act a person can commit. Many aspects of parenting require a degree of selflessness, true, but to conceive a child is the apex of human selfishness and arrogance. Biological impulses aside, the desire to conceive is two-fold: 1) an intense need to love and be loved unconditionally; and 2) an underlying belief that one’s DNA is so significant (read: awesome) that humanity will be better off if it is passed to another generation. Of course, some people can’t have children for any number of reasons, so the second reason may be less applicable for some than others. Regardless, any other reasons someone gives for wanting a child are, frankly, crap. There is no other reason. Selfishness is all there is, and all there is is selfishness. And as a parent, a card-carrying member of The Cult, I can personally testify that it was definitely this selfishness that led to two tiny people sharing my house with me.
So, this selfishness causes you to get pregnant/get someone pregnant. And even though your child has not yet been born, you’ve already begun your initiation into The Cult. You begin to shop at Baby Stuff Stores, go to parenting classes, have a baby shower, and speak more with your parents than you have at any point in your life about What’s About To Happen. Once the kid is born, your initiation is complete, but you are still a neophyte.
Your standing in The Cult is low. You will be put into your place by other parents at every opportunity. “Oh, in a few months, when she’s crawling, you’ll really be in for it!” Or, “Just wait until potty training!” Or, “If you think one kid is hard, wait until you have two!” I’ve been on the receiving end of all of these, and lots more. You see, there’s a hierarchy in The Cult. One’s prestige is earned by hardships endured and children raised. One kid raised from infancy to drinking his way through college earns you a few points. Raising more than one immediately and permanently trumps this. Even if that one kid is a Rhodes scholar, a giant among men who splits the atom in his sleep and holds the empire of the world in his heart, it doesn’t matter. It’s not as hard as raising two or three or 21,** so who cares about your Rhodes scholar? If your kid has medical problems, you get lots of bonus points. These are not to be confused with sympathy. No, these are guilt points. They’re guilt from parents of healthy kids who don’t want to say out loud, “I’m so glad you’re going through this and not me.” Every parent’s greatest terror is the grave illness or passing of a child.
Of course, there is no published hierarchy, so when Cultists meet one another, the first questions asked establish this. How many children, how old are they, any special needs, are they as Advanced as my kid, and so on. After one parent has established himself as the senior, most parenty parent, other conversations can begin.
To see the ugliest parts of The Cult, go check out some parenting message boards, particularly those threads dealing with vaccinations, sleep habits, potty training, and breastfeeding. It’s like watching piranhas swarm on some choice lamb that fell into the river. One Cultist says that she doesn’t want to breastfeed for reasons that might very well be practical and reasonable, and dozens of others will heap upon her scorn and guilt you might think reserved for the denizens of a supermax prison. She’ll have a few supporters, maybe, but they’ll be lost amid the din of angry moms who believe she’s failed some purity test of parenting.
This is not to say that The Cult is all sniping and snipping and snapping. Not at all. Cultists can be intensely supportive of one another. If you’d like to test it, read some of the things your parent friends post on Twitterbook or whatever. Look for any times that person has written about some struggle or hardship he or she has gone through in the course of raising a kid. All of his or her other parent friends will have anecdotes and advice aplenty, and maybe some uplifting talk to go with it. I have seen with my own eyes two moms who’d been friends for about 10 minutes hugging and crying in the play area at the mall over how hard it is to get their kids dressed and out of the house in the morning.
But what if you’re not part of The Cult? What if you don’t want children? What if you want them but can’t have them? Woe be unto you, the uninitiated. You just Don’t Get It. You don’t know the joys of this or the heartbreak of that, the challenge of one thing or the reward of the other thing. You never knew there was so much you didn’t know until your Cult friends made you feel bad about it. Beyond the implications that you as a non-parent are Less Than, you begin to see and talk to your Cult friends less. They’re busy Culting it up, going on playdates, Disney on Ice***, children’s museums, and so on. And when you do talk to them, every conversation is either about their children, or how much they miss their life before children (which always circles back to how awesome their lives are with children; Cult brainwashing is hard to overcome). Their homes are full of Cult accessories which might as well be alien tech, so unfamiliar is it to you. On the real, I have a baby carrier which I still cannot use because its complex strap system is beyond my six and a half years of higher education. Cult books abound as well. What to Expect When You’re Expecting, What to Expect: the First Year, What to Expect: the First Credit Card Bailout, and on and on. You recognize your friends, but they’re not the same. They’re different. Except, they don’t see it. They want you to join them. They want you to “experience the joy.” Maybe all they want is to have someone new in The Cult so they’re no longer at the bottom of The Cult’s totem pole.
Beyond this, you will see your friends do some crazy things. Like, “What the hell are you thinking?” stuff. A friend of ours saw her kid drop her pacifier on the floor in a public bathroom. Rather than run it under some water less than ten feet away, this mom popped the pacifier into her mouth, licked it clean, and handed it back to the kid. Jen’s mom tells a story about offering up her own hands for her children to vomit into. I have personally driven my kids almost an hour out of my way so my oldest could have a pretzel. Being in The Cult means that you will surrender your common sense to your sanity, seeking to navigate between the Scylla of your kids’ happiness and the Charybdis of your fellow Cultists’ approval.**** That way lies madness.
The only way The Cult differs from other cults is that you can’t get out. You don’t ever get to stop parenting. You can’t escape from a compound, hide out for a few weeks, write a tell-all book, and talk to Anderson Cooper. You can’t leave. Some friends of ours lost a child to SIDS several years ago. What I’ve learned from watching their noble, crushing grief is that you don’t stop being a parent, even if your child dies. The Cult is forever.
*Until it isn’t.
**Seriously, the Duggars must have the most amazing sex life ever.
***I distinctly remember one of my cats wiping out on a slippery floor. This makes me think that The Lion King on Ice could be incredibly entertaining.
****Your best parenting happens when other people, especially other parents, are watching. Your real parenting is what you do when nobody is around.